Our seabirds

Britain and Ireland host globally important breeding populations of seabirds; in total over 8 million birds of 25 species at the time of the last national census. However, seabirds are facing growing pressures, from climate change to increasing exploitation of the marine environment, and are among the world’s most threatened groups of birds. BTO is working with partners to support effective monitoring of seabirds and to assess the pressures they face, so that appropriate conservation solutions can be found.

Gannet. Duncan Wherrett

Monitoring seabirds in partnership

Of Britain and Ireland’s 25 breeding seabird species, six are on the UK Birds of Conservation Concern Red List and a further 18 are Amber-listed, while three and 19 are on the equivalent lists of Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland. Monitoring these vulnerable populations is critical in informing national and international reporting on their status, as well as achieving targeted and effective conservation action. Citizen science plays a vital role in this monitoring. BTO is committed to working with its partners to identify and prioritise the developments that will ensure a robust and secure long-term future for seabird monitoring in these islands. By doing so, our aims are that seabird monitoring should provide:

  • The highest quality evidence on the status of seabird populations (at site and national levels) that informs national and international policy;
  • An understanding of the responses of seabird populations to environmental change;
  • A growing constituency of people, across professional-amateur-public audiences, that are informed about and contributing to seabird monitoring and research.

BTO is a lead partner in the Seabird Monitoring Programme (SMP). The SMP collects annual data on the breeding abundance and productivity of seabirds from sample sites across Britain and Ireland. Through the BTO’s Retrapping for Adult Survival (RAS) scheme and studies at key sites, breeding seabirds are also ringed to provide additional information on annual survival rates. By investigating the factors that affect these demographic parameters, we are able to improve understanding of the drivers of seabird population change. The populations of seabird species in Britain and Ireland are assessed through periodic censuses and BTO is supporting the current seabird census – ‘Seabirds Count’.

Seabirds are facing growing pressures, from climate change to increasing exploitation of the marine environment, and are among the world’s most threatened groups of birds.  

New developments

BTO is working to support effective monitoring of seabirds through its role as an SMP partner and associated developmental work. The Northern Ireland Seabird Network of volunteers, overseen by BTO on behalf of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), has enhanced monitoring in the region, with data feeding into the SMP and results reported annually. On behalf of JNCC, BTO is also developing a new online database for the SMP to enable more efficient data capture, and carries out analytical work to improve the design and value of seabird monitoring. For example, our research has considered how well annual SMP monitoring tracks regional changes in seabird breeding abundance and productivity (Cook et al., 2011) and has scrutinised the requirements for monitoring the survival of seabirds through the RAS scheme (Horswill et al., 2018).

Herring Gull. Beth Arkwright

Changing gull populations

The breeding distributions of gulls, in particular Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, have changed dramatically over the last 50 years. Increasing numbers now breed in urban areas, sometimes bringing them into conflict with humans. Understanding these changing populations is crucial to ensure that management strategies work and are balanced with the species’ conservation needs. BTO is working closely with its partners to ensure the development of robust monitoring methods for these species.

Providing evidence to reduce impacts

The marine environment faces increasing pressure from development, including from offshore renewable energy projects, which are playing an increasing role in governments’ strategies to address climate change. Both in the UK and internationally, BTO works with government, NGO stakeholders and industry to ensure that the best possible scientific evidence and advice is available to assess the potential impacts on seabirds of such developments. BTO research has led to design improvements that reduce the risk of collision with wind turbines for seabirds. In this country, the data collected by the SMP, RAS and periodic censuses are invaluable in informing these assessments. Nevertheless, it may be difficult to detect the changes that may result from such developments through existing monitoring. BTO continues to work with others to improve our ability to detect such impacts, and understand how they may be best reduced.

Help cover the gaps

Volunteer participation is vital to seabird monitoring; BTO supporters can volunteer for Seabirds Count and take part in a RAS scheme for seabirds.

Take part in a project

Related Publications

Peer-reviewed papers

Reconciling policy with ecological requirements in biodiversity monitoring

Making sense of monitoring

2011 | Cook, A.S.C.P., Parsons, M., Mitchell I. & Robinson R.A.

Marine Ecology Progress Series

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Research Reports
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Urban Breeding Gull Surveys: A Review of Methods and Options for Survey Design

2016 | Kathryn E Ross, Niall H K Burton, Dawn E Balmer, Elizabeth M Humphreys, Graham E Austin, Beth Goddard, Helena Schindler-Dite and Mark M Rehfisch
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Peer-reviewed papers

Modelling flight heights of marine birds to more accurately assess collision risk with offshore wind turbines

High flying birds at greater risk of collision with offshore wind turbines

2014 | Johnston, A., Cook, A.S.C.P., Wright, L.J., Humphreys, E.M. & Burton, N.H.K.

Journal of Applied Ecology

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